A Zero Carbon City Grows in the Desert

Its motto is "Believe Realize Succeed Sustain". Its associations include a Sultan, General Electric Rolls-Royce and MIT. Its name means ‘the source'. It purports to be the world's first zero carbon, zero waste city and it's located in the United Arab Emirates, 11 miles from Abu Dhabi. It's Masdar City.

It's an ambitious undertaking and one that is unexpected from an oil exporting country. The city will cover 2.3 square miles and is being designed by Foster + Partners, a British architectural firm. It will rely entirely on solar energy and other renewable energy sources for its power. 50,000 people are expected to reside there, along with 15,000 commercial and manufacturing businesses creating and selling environmentally friendly products. 40,000 people are expected to commute there to work every day. The city will also be home to the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology (MIST), which will be developed with help from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The focus of the university will be, you guessed it, research on renewable energy and sustainability.

80% of water will be recycled through underground collection systems. Waste will be converted to energy and emissions from construction will be offset. The entire project is expected to take 8 - 10 years to build and cost $22 billion, with the first buildings going up as early as summer of 2009. The project is being funded by the Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company (ADFEC), a company owned by Mubadala Development Company.

In a deal recently signed, its first corporate tenant is General Electric's first Ecomagination Centre. It will focus on, that's right, sustainable business solutions and the development of clean technology products in a 4000 square foot facility conveniently located near MIST.

In a bold move, cars will be banned from the city with public mass transit and personal rapid transit systems running under the city like a subway system and providing all transportation within city limits through 1500 stations. It's a very high tech concept that has been around for a while:

"Really, all it is is a car," says Scott McGuigan of CH2M Hill, the construction firm that's building Masdar City. "It's a simple vehicle [for] six passengers. It's designed like a car, but obviously it's powered by solar energy with batteries."


"You program what station you want to go to, and [the vehicle] will directly take you to that station," he says. "If you look at things like Blade Runner, etc., that we had 15 years ago, it's really bringing that to the fore now." - NPR

Skeptics say that the zero waste goal will be impossible to reach. They also point out that the rest of the country will continue to guzzle and sell fossil fuels at alarming rates. The Guardian's Frank Pearce calls it "a green bubble in a sea of unsustainability" and sees it as part of the green washing of the gulf states:

The Gulf states are keen to promote green kit - and will throw cash at it as if they were buying a Premier League football team - but have rather missed out on the purpose. It's like changing to energy-efficient lightbulbs, but driving a Hummer to the shops to buy them. - The Guardian

The more important issue, however, may be the attempt to reach the goals of zero carbon and zero waste, and the technology solutions that come out of it. If companies like GE, Rolls-Royce, Mitsubishi and others flock there to be part of what CEO Dr. Sultan Al Jaber calls ‘the world's Silicon Valley for clean technology', then the development of new technology solutions may be accelerated through new collaborations. And if those solutions can be broadly applied to cities that are already built - without the benefit of a carbon neutral, zero waste mandate - then Masdar will have reached well beyond its city walls.

Related Reading:
Costa Rica Sets Goal of Carbon Neutrality by 2021
Carbon and Nuclear Free: An Detailed Energy Plan for the U.S.



If you see any unhelpful comments, please let us know immediately.

Charles M. 110°

This is not a zero carbon city. The construction is going to be offset.

As should be clear to everyone by now, offsetting does not remove the pollution, it just pays a "feel-good" levy to take the guilt away.

Good to see they're doing things to reduce impact, but calling it zero carbon is borderline fraudulent.

Written in February 2009

You are absoulutely right that the zero carbon aspects do not apply to the construction but to the operation of the city and that offsets do not really offset carbon usage. I would still maintain, however, that demonstrating how and developing technology for cities to be operationally carbon neutral may still have a positive result that reaches well beyond this project.

Written in February 2009

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  • Posted on Feb. 5, 2009. Listed in:

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